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February 15, 2007

David Lynch's Hotel Room

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The sooty, bloodstained heart of Inland Empire is the long monologue that Laura Dern delivers in the tiny damp room at the top of that long dark staircase. It's the scene, chopped up and stretched out across the three hour running time, which was the genesis of the film itself; in a recent interview with Daniel Nemat-Nejat, Dern revealed that, as far as she was concerned, the personae in this scene was her character: "To me, it was about this woman in trouble, a woman who is dismantling, and her emotional and abstract journey of trying to define a character for an audience, emotionally. The girls, I don’t know what other people think of them, but to me they’re these abstractions in her mind, what she’s feeling."

Multiple parallels can be drawn between Inland Empire and Lynch's other films (at this point, saying that it's similar to Mulholland Drive or Lost Highway is just redundant), but watching Dern's monologue (an excerpt of which you can see here), and hearing of the particular sort of trouble she was in, I was reminded of a lesser known work: Hotel Room.

This was a three-part miniseries for HBO, produced by Lynch and Monty Montgomery; it was released on VHS in 1992, and these days can be found in specialty video stores or for high prices on eBay. I'd seen it once, about ten years ago, and for some time afterward I'd often list its third segment as one of the finest things Lynch had ever made. I tracked down a copy of it the other day, to refresh my memory, and found in it evidence of a prominent throughline stretching out in both directions, across Lynch's entire career.

Before I get into that, though, a brief primer on the piece itself. The series is set entirely in Room 603 of the Railroad Hotel in New York City, a motif that is established with an abstract montage of vintage footage, depicting a Manhattan high-rise being constructed (this opening sequence can be seen here), and introductory narration provided by Lynch himself:

For a millennium, the space for the hotel room existed, undefined. Mankind captured it, gave it shape and passed through. And sometimes, in passing through, they found themselves brushing up against the secret names of truth.

Which is a rather high-faltutin' way to describe a fairly common anthological device - but it's in keeping with the interests of its creator, who's often professed his love for the phenomenon of interior space, and it sets up the one narrative conceit that separates this series from the infamous Four Rooms that would come along a few years later: each episode is set in a different time period. The first, Tricks, is set in 1969, and concerns two grizzled old acquaintances (Harry Dean Stanton and Freddie Jones) reminiscing with a prostitute (Glenne Headley). This episode was written by Barry Gifford and directed by Lynch (their second collaboration after Wild At Heart). Aside from the welcome presence of two of Lynch's most beloved company actors and a brief moment that combines sex and creepy sound effects, it's remarkably restrained, with the greatest emphasis being placed on Gifford's dialogue; for the most part, Tricks plays like a one-act play, with long takes and a proscenium implied by an undemonstrative lens. The same is even more true of the second episode, Getting Rid Of Robert, which Lynch actually had nothing to do with.Written by Jay McInerny and directed by Saturday Night Live's James Signorelli, it's a mildly twisted, mostly entertaining tale of a gold digging socialite (Deborah Karr Unger) waiting in the room with her friends for her boyfriend (Griffin Dunne) to arrive - so that, as implied by the title, she can inform him that he's history. Things go predictably awry, but not in any way that's terribly memorable.

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This all changes the moment the final episode begins, as a blinding flash of lightning illuminates the pitch black hotel corridor (as seen in the image above) and the low sustenance of Angelo Badalementi's strings creeps into the soundtrack (the previous installments featured the sultry bass guitar lines that Badalamenti often used on Twin Peaks). We're back in the hands of Lynch and Gifford again, for an episode entitled The Blackout that is set during the actual 1937 power outage in Manhattan. In an introduction to a published teleplay, Gifford described the origin of this particular episode thusly:

Blackout was written in two days with the admonition from Messrs. Montgomery and Lynch that it be "something our grandmothers could watch." I told Monty that would not be a problem; I'll write the play, I said, you guys gag and tie up the old ladies."

Crispin Glover (in a strong and all too rare dramatic turn) and Alicia Witt (last seen in a Lynch film dancing ecstatically on the burning fields of Arrakis) star as Danny and Diane, a married couple from Oklahoma who have traveled to New York so that Diane can see a doctor. Her ailment isn't specified, although it doesn't take long to figure out that she suffers from some sort of dementia. She doesn't seem to know where she is, or what's going on; at times, she seems to be hallucinating, and at one point she screams out to her husband a line of dialogue sounds almost like it's plucked right from the next feature film Gifford and Lynch would write together:

I saw you on the other side and I yelled "Danny! Danny!" But it wasn't you.

This episode runs nearly twice the length of the previous ones, and is so different in tone and style that it feels like a completely separate project. Although it's still, in essence, a two-character play, Lynch's direction is anything but theatrical; it feels like one of his films, from the suffocating darkness to the extreme close-ups to the thick texture of the sound design (credited to the man himself) to a POV shot with a candle that prefigures the pointing finger following Laura Dern through Inland Empire. And it's scary, in that unspeakable way that Lynch always manages; an atmospheric dread, an ephemeral terror that builds to spontaneous breaking points. And then, at the end, the lights come back on and wash out Danny and Diane and room 603 itself in an ethereal white glow.

Before that happens, though, there's the slow, drawn out reveal of what is at the root of Diane's malady: she and Danny had a son who died, a little boy whom they affectionately call 'Dan-Bug.' This is what I was reminded of during that monologue in Inland Empire, in which Laura Dern's character eventually explains that she lost the the little boy she was carrying, but there was an additional detail in The Blackout that I'd forgotten about. The son died, yes, but more specifically, he drowned, accidentally, while his parents were having sex.

Sex is a terrifying thing in Lynch's films; pleasure and desire can never be enjoyed on their own terms because they are so intrinsically linked to the anxiety of parenthood. This is, after all, what Eraserhead was all about, but there's another frightening theme implicit in this; something to do with maternal guilt. It's there in Inland Empire, certainly, but let's look back further, to the Straight Story, in which Sissy Spacek's son perished in an accidental fire; to Wild At Heart and the abortion Lula's own mother forced upon her; to Dorothy Vallens' kidnapped son in Blue Velvet; to Eraserhead, where Henry's wife abandons the grotesque baby, and to The Elephant Man, where that baby grows up alone. It's a theme so prevalent that I'm sure it's been written about at greater length elsewhere; as it is, I'm a bit shocked that I've only just realized the depths to which it runs.

That The Blackout might be the crystallization of a particularly autobiographical strain in his oveure is trumped, somewhat, by the fact that Lynch didn't actually write it; but there's a reason he gravitated towards it, and gave it such precedence over the other episodes of Hotel Room, and it's a reason we're best left to puzzle over ourselves. During his Q&A in Austin last month, someone asked him about certain consistencies running throughout his work. Lynch asked for some examples and, upon hearing them, nodded (as if he'd never considered this possibility before) and agreed that the parallels were there, if one wanted to draw them, but that he never thought about them; any artist's work is inherently reflective of elements in their own lives, and certain motifs might resultingly recur, but he never proactively sets out to explore them, or to explain them afterwards.

A few years ago, it was rumored that Lynch had acquired the rights to The Blackout and Tricks and was planning on releasing them through his website, as he's done with all the short films that previously were only available on degraded VHS tapes many times removed from their first generation. For the time being, that's still the only way to see Hotel Room (unless someone uploads it to YouTube, as has been done with Lynch's failed network series On The Air); but it's worth seeking out.

Posted by David Lowery at February 15, 2007 2:04 PM

Comments

wow, i've never seen this. will have to find it.. great read!

Posted by: brad at February 16, 2007 5:50 PM

great post! unfortunately, i wonder if like most of lynch's other work, he retains at least partial rights to it and therefore decides when to release it on dvd. which is, like, never: remember how long it took for him to release "eraserhead" in that funny square box? and where the hell is season two of "twin peaks" already?

this sounds like a fantastic series, and it will probably languish on VHS indefinitely.

Posted by: jordon at February 19, 2007 1:28 PM

I appreciate your comments on The Blackout, which I continue to undervalue. I've seen this and Tricks many times but still infinitely prefer the latter. Having said that I think your observations are very astute and probably dead on (Wrapped in Plastic magazine did a great write up on this set years ago and I believe they hit a number of similar points to yours). Still, for me Tricks is the better piece for the very reason that it does atypically emphasize dialogue, and features a fascinating, rambling narrative even more challenging than the one in Blackout because it is even less explicable, even more oblique. It may be a less "pronounced" Lynch work but it communicates very palpable and yet undefinable dread in a representative fashion. It approximates the feeling of being completely psychically unmoored.

And if there is any merit to psychological explanations for an artist's motivations, I'd hate to think what lies at the heart of Lynch's profoundly sympathetic treatment of issues of childhood trauma. To this day I've never seen a film on the subject with more devastating power than that of the revelation of the killer on Twin Peaks. In those isolated ten minutes Lynch may have done his finest work ever; without shirking from the ugliness and the pain and the great sense of betrayal he delicately acknowledged a personal holocaust by presenting it as a cosmic rift.

Posted by: nathaniel at February 19, 2007 9:25 PM

Thanks for the comments, folks.

Jordon, the second season of Twin Peaks is finally coming out on April 3rd! But since I never bought the first season for some strange reason, I'm going to hold out for the complete series box set that is supposedly going to be released later in the year. I think, more often than not, the delayed releases have to do with the tangle of rights that various films are caught in (I know that was the case with Twin Peaks) and complacency on the studios' part. Lynch has a mastered Lost Highway DVD ready to go, but Universal is the one sitting on it.

Nathaniel, I did write my review with an eye towards the blatantly Lynchian; from an objective standpoint, Tricks is indeed worth a closer look. It's a marvelous piece of writing. It's also more original, in the narrative sense, and too because it doesn't really contain any of the overt tropes we've come to expect in Lynch's work. It reminded me a lot of Barton Fink, too - and not just because of the setting.

"And if there is any merit to psychological explanations for an artist's motivations, I'd hate to think what lies at the heart of Lynch's profoundly sympathetic treatment of issues of childhood trauma."

I actually had a paragraph on this topic in the original draft of this post. I think there is some merit to psychological explanations, but at the same time I'm inclined to keep autobiography out of my own readings (this is related to why I'm quite sympathetic to directors who don't like doing audio commentaries). Perhaps Lynch experienced some childhood trauma himself that he's been working through ever since perhaps he was just an overly worried parent. Maybe it's as simple as a sustained interest-turned-fallback. Regardless, I think it's his skill as a filmmaker that's enabled him to convey these themes with such terrifying beauty, moreso than any firsthand experience.

Posted by: Ghostboy at February 20, 2007 12:27 AM